Xabi Alonso is involved in a big derby. But it's not on Merseyside...
On the August day that Xabi Alonso completed his transfer to Real Madrid, passed the medical, signed the papers and posed for pictures, he was late for training. When the £30million signing then appeared at the club's green oasis amid the flat airport drylands on Madrid's outskirts, his new colleagues halted their session, turned and applauded the former Liverpool playmaker. It seemed like a moment of arrival. Onlookers saw a powerful gesture of warmth, of respect, a sign that Alonso's stature was being recognised within Real even before a ball had been kicked. Some of Xabi Alonso shared that view too, and he was pleased. However, another piece of Alonso saw it a different way: he saw people taking the mickey. But this pleased him as well. 'All my team-mates were already out on the pitch training but, as I had so many things to do that day, I was late,' Alonso explained. 'This happens in Spain. Whenever you are late, you are clapped. Some part of it was a welcome to the club, but a part was sarcastic.' Better late than never: Xabi Alonso misses the start of his very first Madrid training session The sarcasm was normal and Xabi Alonso likes normal. While the world was in fever over the biggest summer spending spree in football history £200m on Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaka and the prospect of Galactico II, Alonso was already feeling cool towards a comparison and an association with whatultimately was a failed adventure first time around. Galactico is neither a name nor a lifestyle choice that Alonso courts. At Real Madrid 2009, he said, he has found that others agree. 'That's a term that has done a lot of damage to past eras,' he said. 'That's why it is avoided. We never use that word. It's nothing close to Galactico here, it's very humble, everything here is earthly.' Making the jump: Alonso joined Madrid, aware that the team is a work in progress On nights like tomorrow's at the Nou Camp, however, keeping feet onthe ground in the midst of the stardust of El Clasico will be a task initself. This is no fixture that can be played down, even if it were notthe first Barcelona-Real meeting since Florentino Perez re-took Realand started this new, acquisitive era. But it is the first.It is also the first match since Barca went to the Bernabeu stadium inMay and clattered six past Real. That's not a scoreline likely to beforgotten soon. Real were so distraught they then lost their remainingfour La Liga fixtures. Barcawere rampant. They won the title by nine points and three weeks lateradded the European Cup. Real, who had been eliminated 4-0 at Anfield,were bystanders as their greatest rivals bestrode Spain and Europe. Humbled: Barcelona went on the rampage in the Bernabeu That is why there had to be change in Madrid, and it is dramatic. Spice has been added. A fit-again Ronaldo should bump into a fit-again Lionel Messi, even if the latter only appears from the bench. Alonso and Kaka will encounter Xavi and Iniesta. Yet Alonso, who turned 28 on Wednesday, looked ahead and said: 'It'll be a nice experience for me.' It was understatement that could be described as 'clasico'. He continued. 'It is a massive stadium. The last time I played there was with Liverpool, last 16 of the Champions League, and we got a great result. So my last memories are brilliant. But it'll probably be a more passionate game on Sunday, the Clasico for them is very important. 'It's always special to play in the Nou Camp. I've played there with Real Sociedad, with Liverpool, but playing there with Real Madrid will make it even more special because we know the meaning of this big Clasico. 'Of course you can have other kinds of readings into this outside of football we know that Madrid is the capital, but they are the biggest team in Spain and both have support from many parts outside Madrid and Barcelona. They are two of the most powerful and historic teams, and then you get all of the coverage, speculation. It means a lot.' The reference to Liverpool was fleeting. It feels as if Anfield's missing X factor is talked about now as much as when he was there, but Alonso does not want to be embroiled in Rafael Benitez's situation any longer. He did what Benitez does, thanked the supporters. 'I have always felt very appreciated,' Alonso said. 'From the first day I have had the support of the Liverpool fans honestly I think they are the best supporters I have ever had and will ever have. That's why I have been so grateful.' But Alonso has moved on. Leaving Liverpool is a part of football for him, just as tomorrow will be a return to Barcelona. Alonso's father, known as Periko, played for Barca in the mid-80s. Son Xabi spent the first six years of his life in the Catalan capital, though he was coy this week on which club his father supports. 'My father played for Barcelona for three seasons and I had six years living in the city, so I've a connection with the city as well. We went to live in Barcelona when I was one and we came back to San Sebastian when I was six.' He could not recollect any of his father's games but recalled a friendly with his youth team, Antiguoko: 'Probably my first memory of the Nou Camp is of when I was 12 or 13 years old. I went to play a friendly against Barcelona. After that we stayed on to watch a game.' Madrid travel as La Liga leaders, by a point, and leaders of their Champions League group, having beaten FC Zurich 1-0 on Wednesday night. That could suggest the new team is finding itself, but manager Manuel Pellegrini noted 'a lack of creativity' against Zurich, while Johan Cruyff said on Thursday that Barca are playing 'a thousand times' better football than Real. English exports: Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo joined Real Madrid for a combined total of £110million Barca are a developed team, Real are a work in progress. 'I think we're in a process,' Alonso said. 'There's a lot of things to improve, to gel, but I feel we've taken a step forward. In that sense we are happy. But we don't want to get over-ambitious, just get better.' There have been hiccups, exiting the Spanish Cup to lowly Alcorcon being the worst, and Alonso added the 3-2 home defeat to AC Milan in the Champions League. 'Sometimes when you get a defeat here, you hear about it for a long time,' he said. 'But as long as you win the next match...' Even then the criticism can be striking. Last Saturday's 1-0 win over Racing Santander brought a headline: 'Victory Despite Pellegrini'. Surprise, surprise, the manager is under pressure already. That is all part of the madness of Real Madrid. That is the deal a sensible character like Alonso has accepted. He knew the figures. In the midst of Spain's worst-ever economic crisis, a £200m spree. Did he not think the entire venture was, at least, a bit odd? 'Of course it's odd. But football is odd and bizarre in so many ways. Many times the world goes one way and football goes the opposite way. It's not scientific, football. That's why it is loved.' Sky Sports will show three major derbies tomorrow: Everton v Liverpool, Arsenal v Chelsea and El Cl?co, Barcelona v Real Madrid - all LIVE and in high definition. To upgrade to Sky HD call: 08442 410 564 Hungry Ronaldo eyes Barcelona upset after return to fitness for Real MadridTwo tribes go to war: It's derby day in London, Liverpool and the MidlandsCheer up Stevie G: Kop old boy Alonso tells skipper to get over himReal Madrid 1 FC Zurich 0: Ronaldo returns as Galacticos ease homeIs it time for Steven Gerrard to walk alone out of Liverpool? Explore more:People:Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Florentino Perez, Johan Cruyff, Xavi, Lionel Messi, Rafael BenitezPlaces:Barcelona, Liverpool, Madrid, Spain, Europe
Related Liverpool News